I have never really believed in ghosts, but I actually had a personal experience which I still find hard to explain. I was walking beside the river Kwai in Thailand with my wife. We had been told that a steam train travelled across the famous bridge once a week as a memorial to the POWs who had died — and we were keen to photograph it.
So we were shocked when, quite suddenly, we heard it approaching, an hour earlier than had been expected. We both heard it quite clearly; the heavy panting of the locomotive, the rattle of the wheels. Very quickly, we ran up the slope, annoyed with ourselves. The engine got closer and closer.
But when we reached the top, there was no train there. In fact, we were told, the train wasn’t coming at all that day. The track was empty. I have never seen a ghost but I am quite convinced that we heard one, and neither of us have ever forgotten it.
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My first husband, the writer Rayne Kruger, was friendly with Lord Armstrong, who owned Bamburgh Castle. In the 1950s, when Rayne was young and struggling, Lord Armstrong would lend him the castle keep as a bolthole in which to get on with his writing. He and his then wife had a cat called Gato. Every night when they sat in the sitting room, Northumbrian wind howling outside and waves crashing below, the cat, sleeping in front of the fire, would suddenly wake. At exactly the same time each evening, he’d stand up, back arched, hair on end, and his eyes would follow what Rayne swore must have been a cat-ghost, slowly walking round three sides of the room and then vanishing through the wall. It had to be a cat-ghost, he said, because Gato’s eyes followed his progress at skirting level, not human level. And only Gato could see him.
This time last year, in a review for The Spectator of two books on extraterrestrial life, I mentioned how, as a child, the highlight of the summer holidays was when my cousin Simon came to stay. Our great shared passion was mysteries: not only flying saucers, but everything from the Loch Ness Monster to Atlantis as well. Naturally, ghosts figured high on the list of our obsessions. We knew all the classic tales of hauntings: from a spectre in chains reported by Pliny the Younger to have roamed a house in Athens, to Borley Rectory. Nothing, though, gave us quite as delicious a shudder of dread as a photograph of an Ipswich man sitting in a car, taken back in 1951 by his wife after a visit to her mother’s grave — for there, sitting in the back seat, was her mother. Every night, when we were supposed to be asleep, Simon and I would dare each other to look at it by torchlight; every night, we would manage at best a couple of seconds before dropping the book with a scream. Even now — possessed as I am of a much better understanding of how cameras in the 1950s might sometimes produce accidental double-exposures — I find that the photograph (reproduced here) can still give me the occasional shiver.
It was the mid-afternoon of a summer in Venice in the late 1950s. The artist Michael Wishart and I had just returned from the lido and were lying on our beds, reading, in a first-floor room in the Gritti hotel.
Something — a change in atmosphere maybe — made us both look up, and we saw a figure, seemingly a man wearing a dark cloak-like garment and a large hat, move silently, unhurriedly, from the door, past the end of our beds, and through the wall with a window giving on to a narrow canal. With one voice we said: ‘Someone’s (not “something”, note) just walked through the room’, and going to the window, we saw the masonry foundations of a bridge from precisely the spot the figure had disappeared into, across to the building opposite.
The apparition was totally unfrightening, but memorably vivid, and rather gives the lie to Margot Asquith’s remark that the trouble with ghosts is that ‘their appearance is against them’. Exactly the same account appears in Wishart’s autobiography, written several years later.
A friend, the late Anthony Beerbohm, an ex-TV advert producer from the Mad Men days, told this story to me.
Anthony retired to Provence. He had an English friend who lived in an old Provençal house which was incontrovertibly haunted. The hauntings were so frequent and upsetting that his friend and their young family had to leave. Among many other accounts of the hauntings, his friend told Anthony that one Sunday it was arranged that some neighbours should come over for Sunday lunch at about 1 p.m. The appointed hour came — no neighbours. He and his wife hung on till 1.30, then ate alone.
Later in the afternoon they decided to ring their absent guests to find out what had happened. ‘We came along just before 1,’ they said. ‘But there seemed to be a fancy-dress party going on on the lawn, a lavish affair with music and dancing and everyone dressed up in old-fashioned clothes. We thought we must have misunderstood the arrangement and come on the wrong day, so we turned around and went home again.’
The chap was an academic, a musicologist with a special interest in medieval French folk songs. On another occasion, his son, then aged about six, came in from the garden singing a virtually unknown ancient and obscure French folk song. The chap was astonished. ‘Where did you learn that song?’ he asked his son. ‘From that old man in the garden wearing funny clothes,’ said the boy.
Early in the 20th century, my grand-father, William Sallitt, was returning home to his house in Ilkley along a long, straight, deserted country lane. The November night was falling fast, as were starched, curled leaves which crackled beneath his feet as he walked, because, very unusually for the West Riding, there had been no rain for weeks.
Surprised to see an old woman approaching with a black shawl around her head, he raised his hat and bid her ‘good evening’, at which she totally ignored him. Only after she’d passed him did his blood run colder than the evening, as he realised her feet had made no rustling sound in the dry leaves. Swinging round, he found no one in the long straight lane. She had vanished without trace. Crossing himself in terror, he ran all the way home.
A friend bought a new small terraced house of late Victorian origin in a northern city. She liked it; it had no bad vibes (and houses sometimes do) but she had to do work: knocking down a couple of walls, damp-proofing, rewiring and so on. She was tight on budget so decided to do as much of the work as possible herself. Nothing untoward was seen, heard or sensed…
But she had a dog, a Jack Russell terrier. He spent weekdays with her brother and sister-in-law, who lived nearby, and Friday night to Monday morning with her. On the first weekend that she started work, she took Barney along. But Barney would not go near the house. He hesitated at the gate, had to be dragged up the front path, and refused absolutely to go inside. She picked him up and carried him in but he shivered and his tail went down and he howled. As soon as she opened the front door, he shot outside.
Her brother and sister-in-law occasionally worked on the house when she was at work and they had Barney. And every time, Barney refused to go into the house. He howled if forced to and shot out the moment he could. Barney had never behaved in this way.
The house was finished and my friend moved in. But Barney continued to howl and resist being taken up the front path. She put him into the kitchen in his basket and shut the door. He had always slept in this way. But here he howled all night, and when she went down to him, she found him shaking and trembling, with the hairs on his neck up, and his tail down. No person ever saw, felt or sensed anything, but in the end she sold the house and bought another a couple of miles away. From the first, Barney settled happily and did not howl in the night again.
I have no idea what upset him, nor did she. But there was undoubtedly something in that house. I have never knowingly seen or heard a ghost, but I have sensed disturbing, even evil, atmospheres in certain buildings that have convinced me of the supernatural. Like Barney really. Except that I have never howled.
I’ve seen a few spectres in my life, the most recent last year, just before New Year’s Eve. We were invited to stay with some friends in Devon. Recently restored, the house is beautiful. My daughter’s room was the sweetest: just down the corridor from ours.
The first night we all slept soundly, replete with food and wine and gossip. On the second night we retired slightly earlier. I awoke at around 2 a.m. Seeing a light flickering, I walked down the corridor to my daughter’s room. She was wide awake, watching a film on my laptop. She too had woken up and couldn’t get back to sleep.
I closed the laptop and straightened out the bedclothes. I then tucked her up and sat on the edge of her bed to stroke her hair. As I sat there, half snoozing, I reflected that the room felt rather chilly. Yet the window was shut tight. Strange. By now my daughter’s eyes were closed, and she was drifting off. I pulled the duvet up around her. ‘Night, darling,’ I whispered. ‘Night, night, Mummy,’ she said, and half opened her eyes.
Her pupils widened in fear. Tears sprang out of nowhere. ‘Mummy, what’s wrong with your face?’ she cried, sinking beneath the covers. I felt a rush of cold air down my spine and a thud in my ears, like a door being slammed a long way away.
My back felt icy. Instinctively, I turned around. It was directly behind me; an absence of warmth and light. Something ancient and evidently rather irritable. Instinctively, I stood up, brushing the air away.
There was a loud hum, as though the room were vibrating and then, just like that, it was gone. Back to normal. We looked at each other. ‘What did you see?’ I asked. ‘Your face,’ replied my daughter, ‘It wasn’t you. It was like… like someone else was looking at me through your eyes.’
I do believe in the possibility of ghosts. I believe in them because I accept some of the testimonies of those who have seen them. I have not seen a ghost myself, but would not be surprised to do so. I have been touched by a dead person. She held my hand and spoke in my ear and I was aware of her face without seeing it. A vivid sense of comfort and reassurance came with the strange and overwhelmingly beautiful experience, which happened about two years after the death of this particular friend.
I had a different experience of another dead friend speaking to me, quite clearly. The news she gave me was completely unknown to me at the time — about the recent death of another of her friends.